Normal or typical?

There is a debate about the concept of normality, and our collective ‘wisdom’ says there is no normal. Lots of people ask, ‘what is normal, anyway?’ So, I’d like to take a shot at explaining what people instinctively understand as normal, whether or not they are aware of it.

Everything that might be considered normal is embedded in what is acceptable and unacceptable social behaviour and communication. We might use the term ‘typical’ instead because its opposite – ‘atypical’ – sounds much nicer than the term ‘abnormal.’ Who wants to be abnormal? Certainly not me.

But that kind of brings me to my point. Whether I’m called atypical or abnormal ultimately amounts to the same thing: if someone feels uncomfortable around me or misunderstands me, they will often treat me as abnormal, weird or awkward. These are often the very same people who will insist ‘there is no such thing as normal.’ So, what difference does it make for me if they say normal or typical when their nonverbal communication implies I’m abnormal?

I think that typical and atypical are euphemisms. They can make people feel comfortable talking about autistic behaviour, but what they say and what they unconsciously feel are at odds with each other. Many people don’t actually like ‘atypical’ behaviour because it’s not normal to their experiences and interactions.

What this means for me is that, in the big picture of it all, I don’t really mind which term is used. But if we zoom into the smaller details of this picture and consider what is important for autistic people to thrive in our societies, I do think some terms are more helpful than others… even if only to change the landscape of what is considered normal. I think typical and atypical are more accurate and scientific. You can look at a population of any animal and determine what is typical for their species in a given environment. Yet, for humans, I think it would be amazing if we could abandon the terms altogether. What the hell is a typical human, anyway?

This reminds me of the concept of race, as well. The neurotypical white understanding of the world simply doesn’t make any fucking sense. People (almost always white) might feel confused and uncomfortable with my behaviour or ways of communicating, but trust me, the feeling is mutual.

It wasn’t always this way for me, though. I’m still trying to disentangle myself from the neurotypical white vision of the world. So, I am thankful for my autistic worldview, because I believe it allows me to see the patterns and flaws in a worldview that is so inauthentic and inaccurate on so many levels.

Here are a variety of some ‘typical’ behaviours and beliefs that I have noticed lately which do not make any sense to me. I use the pronoun ‘you’ to refer to the people I have seen engaging in these behaviours. I realise after writing these points that I might sound angry. I’m not speaking angrily, just passionately.

  1. You expect certain kinds of social behaviour and become reactionary or indifferent when this goes against your expectations. When I talk passionately about a subject that I’m interested in, for example, you dismiss it as naïve or childish or incomplete, as though I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I have gathered that this is because I do speak with a childlike excitement at times, so you become dismissive because how I’m speaking doesn’t match your expectations for adult behaviour, whatever that is. So, I have adapted by not talking about the things I’m passionate about, for fear of being dismissed and misunderstood. Fuck that, I’m done with that. Why does everyone need to behave or think like you? It doesn’t make sense to expect this.

  2. You make huge assumptions about what someone is saying. You insert words and meanings that were never there in the first place. If someone says black lives matter, you assume they mean that only black lives matter or that other people’s lives don’t matter as much as black ones. Nope, that’s not what they said! Nobody ever said that.

  3. You become reactionary when someone tries to explain your misunderstanding. And you have absolutely no appreciation for how exhausting it is to try to explain something over and over to someone who doesn't want to understand. It’s as though you feel entitled to an explanation and equally entitled to dismiss it because you actually don’t want to understand. Why???

  4. You are narrow-minded, unable to consider other perspectives, as though you expect everyone to share yours. Autistic people are often described as literal, ‘black and white’ thinkers, but you are so oblivious to your own black and white thinking. There is so much either-or reasoning in the world, as though you can boil down incredibly complex systems and ways of behaving into binary systems: right or wrong, good or evil. If it goes against your understanding of the world, it must be wrong for everyone. For example, a woman who waits 10+ years to accuse a man of raping her: so many of you say she can’t be telling the truth because she wouldn’t have waited until now to say it. Surely, she would have reported it straight away, you tell yourself. How is it that you cannot even try to imagine why a woman might be afraid to accuse her rapist? Or, a black man is killed by a cop and black people are enraged. You say the rioting and looting that ensues afterward is wrong, full stop. It’s damaging and violent, so there can be no reason for it – just chaotic, irrational behaviour. It shows that some black people really are thugs, you say, that they must like to cause chaos. That is why the cop killed the black man in the first place. How is it that you can expect an oppressed people who live in a system that continuously oppresses them to just sit around peacefully, humbly waiting for their turn at an unoppressed life that perpetually fails to arrive? You might think they make their oppression up or that they bring it on themselves. That’s so typical – so normal – for you to say. They must be lying because it doesn’t match your understanding of the world. You might be able to understand that the oppressed cannot love or sympathise with their oppressors – that they will lash out if they ever get a chance or when there’s enough pressure on their lives to make them explode in fury. So, why is outrage only warranted when you think it is? I know that your life experiences give you context for your own beliefs and choices, and these are experiences that are very personal to you. They give you valid reasons for all sorts of emotions. Why can’t you know that this is true for me and everyone else, too?

  5. You use your experiences to validate or invalidate someone else’s, even when your experience is based on false assumptions. If a cop pulls you over, for example, you will act respectfully and follow their instructions. You will say ‘yes, officer’ or ‘no, officer’ and ‘thank you, officer.’ And the officer will let you go on your way. You then use this experience to imagine that black people must not be doing this, or else they wouldn’t have any problems with the police. If they do get arrested, beat up, killed, then it must have been because they weren’t respectful enough or they didn’t follow instructions. And when black people are outraged that another black man, woman or child has been shot and killed by police, you say that their outrage is wrong or misplaced because your experience has always been positive. You don’t even attempt to imagine what it might feel like to have your loved ones continually die at the hands of the police.

  6. You have a certain version of how the world is supposed to be and react strongly against anything that doesn’t fit your version. Men are supposed to act like men and women like women, and there’s no room for any in-betweens, as though we are cut out of a pre-made pattern, and anything that deviates from that pattern is wrong or defective. You seem to literally have no understanding about the world and the many different human beings in this world. You are clueless to the fact that your own version doesn’t even remotely match the actual world around you. Why do you pigeonhole yourself so narrowly like this?

I think that turned into a bit of a rant, in the end!